Langhorne Slim: Incisive Alt-Country From a Guy Who Digs Wu-Tang

Langhorne Slim (a.k.a. Sean Scolnick) is the latest descendant of a storied line of troubadours steeped in Americana and rusty folk–an aging ancestry built on stark guitar work, broken hearts and lifetimes of regrets to contemplate. Like A.A. Bondy, Elvis Perkins or any number of artists carefully exposing their souls, the weight of Slim's work is measured by how his stories resonate with you. “Rebel Side of Heaven” is an example of what the Pennsylvania-bred songwriter and front man does best. It's a saga of staying away from hell by getting to “the rebel side of heaven.” (Come to think of it, hanging out with Johnny Cash and James Dean in the afterlife would probably be a blast.) 

On his non-touring time, Skolnick is currently putting together a new record, which should be out within the next year and a half. Before his stop at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana for a performance with Old 97's tonight, we caught up with Slim to discuss Wu-Tang Clan, the band he patterned his first lyrics after, and the value of writing about love.

OC Weekly (Reyan Ali): The style of music you play is very much rooted in the past. Why do you gravitate toward an older form?
Sean Scolnick: Yeah, a lot of the music that I've connected with in my life is maybe older than I am, but all I'm trying to do is write as truthfully as I can and try to write a great song. I'm sure I pull from the past, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously. Any musician or artist working today is [working in] the history or tradition of past musicians or artists. But it's not something I sit down and try to do.
You've mentioned before that you keep up on contemporary music. Is it primarily stuff stylistically close to your style, or something completely off the wall, like punk or rap?
To me, that's not totally off the wall. Good punk, good hip-hop, good blues music, any kind of music–the real shit, the raw and real and passionate stuff–all that music affects me the same way. I listen to all those kinds of music and other types as well. It's really just whatever hits my heart and soul. It's not so much [that] I'm into Americana or I'm into rock & roll. I'm just into music.
Who in particular are you into as far as punk and rap go?
Minor Threat was a favorite. I don't listen to much of them anymore, but I got to meet [Ian Mackaye] in Pennsylvania for two seconds, and that was pretty fun. Wu-Tang would definitely be up there.
What are the chances I'll ever get to see you do a Wu-Tang cover live, such as “CREAM”?
Uh . . . there is a possibility. I'm not going to say yes, but there is a possibility. Stranger things have happened.
You've toured with many musicians who play in a similar style to you, such as Lucero. Do you find that the other artists playing in the style have the range you do? Are they also listening to punk and hip-hop in their free time?
Well, I don't think most musicians stick to their genres, at least most I know. Then again, one might disagree. I don't know. They tend to listen to various styles of music. I think as a music-lover, you would be limiting yourself severely by trying to play just one style of music, or at least not being open to being inspired by different things. It would be like only watching romantic comedies, which my girlfriend kind of does. Why? There's so much to explore. Why only to listen to one thing?
The reason I ask is now I'm imagining Ben Nichols from Lucero bumping to Lil Jon.
Yeah, I don't know, but the guys are from Memphis. I'm sure they probably listen to all kinds of music from there.

Considering that you have many good things to say about other styles, do you see those artists influencing you in any way? Has the Wu-Tang style of songwriting ever played into how you put your music together?
No, certainly not so much Wu-Tang. I don't specifically hear it, usually. I think that these different styles and different people that I've grown up a fan of, that their influence seeps into my songwriting. It's not conscious. I always have these songs with me that I love, and maybe I take from that.
How about Otis Redding? You've talked about him a lot before.
Well, Otis is a much clearer influence, for sure. I think he's got one of the greatest voices I've ever heard in any form of music, and [I love] just his delivery and passion. If you've ever listened to Otis Redding's In Person at the Whisky a Go Go or seen any footage of him, it's really remarkable and moving.
You've talked in the past about how you primarily make love songs. Why are you so interested in the subject of love?
Who isn't? [Laughs] I think we all are. And “love song” is not just about “And then she kissed me” kind of thing, but for many, many years, there's been a lot of room for artists and musicians to work on the theme of love. I don't think that's ever going to change. Whether it's love for a woman or a man or your pet parakeet, there's a great well of inspiration in the theme of love, and it affects most of us in a good way or shitty way every day of our lives.
Do you ever want your songs to be particularly revelatory, as in you won't put a song out unless it has something extremely meaningful to say?
Well, no. I think that can be dangerous. Sometimes, it's not enough to have something extremely meaningful to say. No, what I try to demand of myself is just that it sounds right with the song and that I can perform it truthfully and that I'm proud of it as a whole.
I've read a handful of reviews comparing your live show to your records. They frequently say you have to be seen live because you're a lot more energetic onstage. Why do you think that disparity exists between the records and the live show?
They're two totally different things. One, you have a live audience. For me, performing is what comes most naturally. I'm lucky I have melodies that I hope are good that pop into my head, and then I work them out with the words. However, performing is what I've always done and is just what is the most natural for me. Two, you don't have a live audience in a studio. There are different things you're going to do, at least for me, different ways I'm going to react and sing and play because I've got a connection with a bunch of people. It's just different than singing in an isolation booth, which I'm not going to do on this next record. We're going to record this next record live, and I think that it will get us a step closer to that. They're two different beasts.
Have your thoughts on your latest record, Be Set Free, changed since you made it? Are you ever the type that goes back to your records and wishes you could change something you've written? 
Yeah, sure, but I wind up doing that live. I don't go back and listen to the CDs. A lot of people are like this. You spend so much time creating it, and then, at least for me, I listen to it constantly as we're recording it. After it's done, and especially after it comes out, I really just move on. I'm sure that there are songs I would listen to and say, “It would have been cool if I said this or did this a little differently,” but that's just a part of growing with the song.
You've toured a lot, made an appearance on the Late Show, and released a handful of records. Are there any big ambitions that still allude you?
Yeah, tons of them. [Laughs] Inner peace. That would be a good one. Also, to continue play for more and more people and putting out records and making a living playing music. 
As far as inner peace goes, is that something your music can help you achieve?
I think my music helps me achieve it as much as it helps me elude it. For me, what could bring me the most happiness can also make me the most frustrated. Writing music, for me, is definitely that.
You started writing songs at around 14. Do you remember what your work was like back then?
Yeah, [it was] much more Nirvana-inspired. It was definitely about problems at school and with authority and stuff that a lot of 14-year-old kids probably write about. 
Have you ever gone back and dug through your lyrics since your career has taken off?
Yeah, I've run into them, but unfortunately, I don't have all that stuff organized. I have many, many four-track tapes and books in which I would write lyrics in school. Some of it isn't bad, but some of it is a little embarrassing.
Ultimately, what has been the biggest source of change within your songwriting since you were 14? What about your work or playing has matured the most since then?
I think as you get older and keep doing it, you hope that you're getting better at your craft and being truer to yourself. Like I said before, I don't really analyze what the song sounded like. I just try to write great songs and throw them out there and see what people think. For me, that's what I feel like I'm here to do.

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